Monday, December 5, 2011

Cherry Almond Cookies with Vanilla Glaze + How to Host a Holiday Cookie Exchange

I'm not the kind of person who hosts parties.

I'm more of a doesn't-answer-her-phone-if-she-doesn't-recognize-your-number, turns-off-the-TV-and-hides-in-the-corner-when-the-doorbell-rings, pretends-she-doesn't-see-you-at-the-grocery-store kind of person.


But in spite of my social ineptitude, I did host a party! A party that involved 36 dozen cookies. And gingerbread houses that weren't made of gingerbread. And lots of candy and royal icing.

I hosted a holiday cookie exchange! Which pretty much makes me an expert party-hoster (hostess?) and qualifies me to teach you how to host one yourself. Who needs Martha?

Step 1: Set a Date and Invite Guests
  • Send out your invitations 3-4 weeks before the party. I used Evite, which has quite a few holiday-themed invitations, including a couple specifically designed for cookie exchanges.
  • For this kind of party, 8-12 guests is ideal. The fewer guests you have, the less variety you'll have in your cookie selection. On the other hand, the more guests you have, the more cookies each person has to make; if the number gets too high, it may deter people from wanting to participate in the exchange.
  • Ask your guests to RSVP at least two weeks before the party. The number of cookies each person needs to bring will depend on how many guests plan to attend; setting an RSVP deadline will ensure that you can give your guests plenty of notice as to how many cookies to bake.
  • Ask that your guests let you know what kind of cookie they plan to bring when they RSVP. This will allow you to make sure there are no duplicates.
  • Be sure to explain what a cookie exchange is in case your guests aren't familiar with this kind of party. Feel free to use the wording from my invitation:
Please join me for a festive evening of delicious cookies and holiday cheer! 
 A cookie exchange is no ordinary party! For this special occasion, each guest will need to bring a few dozen homemade, holiday-themed cookies. The best part? Everyone leaves with an assortment of cookies to enjoy at home!
Please RSVP by November 20th, and let me know what kind of cookie you are planning to bring. This way I can make sure there are no duplicates; it's more fun if everyone brings something different!
Once I know how many people are attending, I will let each of you know how many cookies to bring.
I look forward to celebrating the season with you!
P.S. Holiday attire is strongly encouraged! 

Step 2: Finalize Details with Confirmed Guests
  • Once all of your guest have RSVP'd or the deadline you set has arrived, contact the guests who will be attending and let them know how many cookies they will each need to bring.
  • The number of cookies you want each person to bring is totally up to you. At my party, there were nine people including myself, and each person brought 4 dozen cookies; this meant that everyone was able to take 5-6 of each cookie home. I felt that this was a really manageable number of cookies for each person to bake, and there were plenty to go around. However, some of the sources I consulted recommended that each person bring a dozen cookies per guest plus an extra dozen to be eaten at the party. Do whatever you think will work best for your guests and your party!
  • Find out what kind of cookie each guest is bringing, if they haven't already told you. If there are any duplicates, find out if either person is willing to bring something different. Or let them bring the same thing... it's up to you! Everyone at my party brought something totally different, which gave everyone a really nice variety to take home.
  • Ask each person to bring enough copies of their recipe for each guest. Alternatively, you can ask each person to email you their recipe so that you can put together a recipe booklet or packet for each person. I'm lucky enough to have a crafty sister who made adorable recipe card sets for each person:

Step 3: Decide On an Activity
  • You'll need something to do at your party other than stand around and eat cookies. Or maybe you won't. But it's always good to have a back-up plan! Some of the ideas that came to mind when I was planning my party were a white elephant gift exchange, a holiday trivia competition, and holiday charades (that's my awkwardness rearing it's ugly head). Ultimately, I decided on a gingerbread house decorating competition!
  • Whatever you choose to do, keep it simple and make sure it's something that will keep people interacting with each other. Gingerbread houses turned out to be a great idea because we were able to sit down and chat while we were decorating. Here are some tips if you want to make gingerbread houses at your party:
    • Keep it simple by using graham crackers instead of gingerbread. This will cut down on the prep work for you and allow people to be more creative by cutting the crackers into whatever sizes and shapes they want.
    • Royal icing will work best for assembling the houses and attaching decorations. I used Bridget's recipe from Bake at 350. I recommend making a double batch and dividing it into 6-8 plastic sandwich bags. Snip one corner off of each bag and use them to pipe the icing.
    • Make sure you have paper plates on hand to build the houses on. This was something I overlooked, which made it a bit challenging for everyone to take their creations home.
    • The more options you have for decorating the houses, the more fun it will be! Here are some of the things we used:
      • miniature candy canes
      • Candy Cane Hershey's Kisses
      • vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry cream wafers
      • frosted shredded wheat cereal
      • licorice
      • miniature marshmallows
      • shredded coconut
      • m&m's
      • pretzel sticks
      • cinnamon imperials
      • christmas nonpareils and jimmies
    • After everyone has finished their houses, have everyone vote for their favorite!

Step 4: Prepare for the Party
  • Collect everything you will need for the party at least three days ahead of time. Here are some of the things you may need:
    • Ingredients for the cookies you're making
    • Hors d'oeuvres and drinks to serve at the party
    • Supplies for the gingerbread houses
    • Paper plates, cups, napkins, and utensils
    • Boxes for packaging the cookies each guests will take home (I used decorative shirt boxes I found in the seasonal section at Target. As an alternative, you can ask each guest to bring a container with them for transporting the cookies.)
    • Parchment paper
    • Platters to display each kind of cookie
  • Do as much prep work as possible for your cookies the day before the party. This will depend on your recipe, but I was able to make my cookie dough the day before and bake them the day of the party.
  • Create a name tag for each cookie; this way the guests won't have to ask or wonder what each one is. I used ornament placecard holders to display a name tag in front of each platter of cookies.
  • If you're putting together recipe cards for your guests, try to complete these at least two days ahead of time.

Step 5: Party time!
  • When guests arrive, ask them to set out some of their cookies on the platters; have an area set aside for them to place any extras.
  • When it's time for everyone to pack up their cookies, let your guests know how many of each kind they can take. To figure this out, divide the number of cookies each person brought by how many people are at the party (including yourself). If it doesn't work out evenly, round down. 
  • Listen to Christmas music, drink eggnog, and have fun!

Please don't hesitate to leave me a comment if you have any questions. A party like this requires a bit of effort to organize, but it's such a fun way to get together with friends and celebrate the holiday season! Listed below are some of the cookies my guests brought to get you started if you do decide to host a cookie exchange or even if you're just attending one:

I made cherry almond cookies with vanilla glaze (recipe below), which are absolutely delicious! I made a double batch in order to yield 4 dozen cookies. Next time I'll probably make a triple batch in order to ensure that there's plennnty of extra cookie dough. Catch my drift?

Cherry Almond Cookies with Vanilla Glaze
Adapted from Giada De Laurentiis

For the cookies:

1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 egg
1 & 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup dried cherries, chopped
1/2 cup slivered, blanched almonds, chopped

For the vanilla glaze:

2 & 3/4 cups powdered sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 tablespoons water


1. In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the butter for about one minute at medium speed. Add the sugar, vanilla extract, almond extract, cinnamon, and salt and beat for about two minutes more, or until the mixture is light and fluffy. Beat in the egg. Reduce the mixer speed to stir and add the flour, mixing just until completely incorporated. Stir in the cherries and almonds by hand.

2. Transfer the dough to a piece of plastic wrap at least 14 inches long. Shape the dough into a 12-inch log with a diameter of 1 & 1/2 inches. Wrap the dough tightly and chill it for at least two hours or up to three days.

3. Preheat the oven to 350°F and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and remove the plastic wrap. Cut the log into 1/2-inch slices. Arrange the slices one inch apart on the cookie sheets and bake for about 15 minutes, or until the cookies are puffed and golden. Transfer the cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.

4. To make the vanilla glaze: whisk together the powdered sugar, vanilla extract and water in a medium bowl. If the glaze is too thick to drizzle, add water on teaspoon at a time until it reaches the right consistency.

5. Use a spoon to drizzle the glaze back and forth over the cooled cookies; allow the glaze to set for about one hour before serving.

Makes about 24 cookies.

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  1. This is a very helpful post because I have never hosted a cookie exchange, so I enjoyed the read. Also, the flavors of cherry and almonds go so well together-no doubt your cookies were delicious. Great post.